FOOD & WINE SCENE | By Ilona Saari
Birth of a Foodie
If what they say is true, that you are what you eat, then I’m a steak at Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn, a hot dog at Nathan’s in Coney Island or a spinach salad at Joe Allen in Manhattan. But, since moving to Ojai and becoming the food & drink columnist for the Ojai Quarterly four years ago, I’m also a grilled cheese at Bonnie Lu’s, chicken parm at Ca’Marco, or a cheeseburger at Ojai Beverage.
What I really am, however, is a Finnish-American – one not born in a frigid remote Scandinavian outpost of North Dakota or Wisconsin, but rather the Scandinavian hospital in Brooklyn, though I was raised in Bayside, Queens, Long Island, New York where my foodie “cred” began.
I love food, especially food eaten in restaurants, from funky diner cheeseburgers to five-course meals at The French Laundry.
I also love writing about food, so much so that I have my own food blog, but Bayside and much of the world were indifferent to fine dining when I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s. Fine dining was for people in Manhattan. The foodie and fast food culture was decades away. Fast food “restaurants” weren’t on every corner and family restaurant chains were few and far between. People in Bayside mostly ate at home.
Oh, we had a couple of Chinese restaurants in neighboring towns, such as Flushing. And for “special” occasions like Mother’s Day, graduations or Easter Sunday, there was always Patricia Murphy’s family friendly Candlelight Inn in Manhasset, a bit of a car ride schlep on Northern Boulevard, but that just made it more “special.”
And I loved it when my dad would pack up my mom, brother and me into the car and drive us to Howard Johnson’s in Little Neck (or was it Douglaston? Great Neck?) for a family dinner of burgers with that “secret sauce” and fried clams or when he took us to the car-hop diner across from Kitty City on Northern.
But these were “family” restaurants and weren’t in Bayside. There were no Thai, Korean or Greek restaurants in town nor French or nouvelle cuisine restaurants for that matter. But Bayside did have Sal’s Italian fare, and McElroy’s, an Anglo-American eatery.
Even though we would walk “downstreet” to Sal’s on Bell (as my New England bred mother would say), going there as a family seemed a very grown-up outing. This wasn’t a kids’ place — it was an “adult” neighborhood restaurant. I usually put on a dress for dinner at Sal’s. The dining room had a couple of Italian scenic paintings, white table cloths and red candle “globes” in plastic webbing. Atmosphere. It was at Sal’s that I had my first pizza (pizza chains weren’t even in their embryo stage).
Of course, we always started with a “first course” salad made of iceberg lettuce, cut up tomatoes, shaved carrots and maybe an olive or two. You had a choice of dressings, including “Russian” (ketchup and mayo), Italian or blue cheese. Blue cheese dressing! How exotic was that? When we didn’t have pizza, spaghetti with meatballs was our family’s popular second choice. There was no fettuccine alfredo or picatta or marsala anything on the menu, though I think steak pizziaola, eggplant parm and lasagna made nightly appearances.
It didn’t matter if the food was good or bad – to be at Sal’s, sitting at a white table-clothed table, white cloth napkin on my lap, having foreign food made me feel worldly and oh so sophisticated (well, I was in a dress). Yes, mom made spaghetti, even eggplant parm, but that was at home, and I could only have pizza at Sal’s (I never counted the pizza my mom made using American cheese and a slice of tomato on an English muffin).
After my dinners at Sal’s, I yearned to go to McElroy’s. But for me, McElroy’s was really for grown-ups only. It was the place in town where my parents could go “on a date” sometimes after seeing a movie at the old Bayside theater. A sitter would show up at our house and dad would put on a sports jacket and mom a dress and they’d take the car “downstreet.” I wanted to go, or at least be a fly on the wall so that I could discover the mystery of McElroy’s. What was behind its doors? What kind of food did they serve? Was it really forbidden to children?
I think I was about 10 when I got my first glimpse inside. I was strolling down Bell when I came to the restaurant. Its doors were open and I couldn’t resist. I peeked inside. It was dark with a bit of amber glow from a few lighted lamps that was diluted by the daylight glare streaming in from the street through the open door. I squinted to focus my eyes and saw a dark wooden (probably mahogany) bar and a few tables. Liquor bottles were lined up behind the bar like bowling pins and I wondered where the Coca Cola soda fountain dispenser was. I guessed that grown-ups didn’t drink cokes when they went out to dinner by themselves.
I liked what I saw. The room reminded me of bars I’d seen in old movies on TV where Nick and Nora Charles might get a nightcap, though I had no idea what a nightcap was. But it wasn’t until my dad died and I was in my early teens that I got to finally experience McElroy’s – the food and the total restaurant ambiance.
My mom was working for a local contractor and asked my brother and me to meet her there for dinner. I was stunned. We were still kids! But I trusted she knew what she was doing even though I was at the age where I thought she was the dumbest adult on the planet.
My brother put on a good shirt and I wore my nicest skirt and blouse. It was summer, so the sun was still shining when we walked “downstreet” to the restaurant where she was waiting outside to take us in.
It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dimly lit bar, but once they did, I felt I had entered another world. As we went into the adjacent dining room and were seated at a table I was overcome with déjà vu. Why did I feel comfortable in this cozy dark wood paneled room? Why did it feel so familiar? As I looked at the menu with entrees of Salisbury steak, pork chops, chicken and London broil, it came to me. I felt as if I was in Manhattan’s famous Sardi’s that I had read so much about in movie magazines, sans all the drawings of famous theater people. I had arrived!
My mom ordered a Rob Roy perfect and I was given permission to have a Coke with dinner (brought to me in a bottle). I ordered the London broil with mashed potatoes and peas and when I finished every last morsel, I thought it was the best meal I’d ever eaten. In fact, the mashed potatoes were instant and the peas canned, but I didn’t know that. Even if I had, it wouldn’t have mattered, my palate was not that educated and I was in love with the room. Atmosphere.
I went to McElroy’s many times for dinner after that and each time I ordered the London broil with those potatoes and peas. I was never disappointed. I loved it there and years later when I was a young writer in New York, I loved going to Sardi’s. Each represented my parents’ era, a pre and post World War II time I found so very sophisticated and glamorous. I wanted to be Kate Hepburn in “Stage Door” or Bette Davis in just about anything.
The last time I was in McElroy’s was the weekend I left my Manhattan apartment to go home to Bayside for my mother’s wedding shower. Eight years after my dad died, my mom had found a man whom she wanted to marry and family and friends from near and far came for the shower.
Afterward, some of us ladies met up with our husbands and boyfriends at McElroy’s for nightcaps (I had had a few nightcaps by then – often in Sardi’s). We sat at the bar and toasted my mom as memories of our London broil dinners and of mom going there on dates with my dad came flooding back.
A memorable restaurant for me is not always about the food. It’s about the feeling the room gives you and the memories it may trigger or the memories you create there. In that context, McElroy’s and Sal’s were memorable, so when I walked Bell the last time I was in Bayside after a 30-year absence, I was sad to see that both these restaurants were gone. There are so many more choices in Bayside now and I hope some of these new restaurants will feed fond memories to those who go there. I wish I had had time to dine in all of them, creating new Bayside memories and food fodder for my blog.
For now, I’m content with the glorious childhood memories of packaged mashed potatoes, canned peas and iceberg lettuce salads.